The magazine of the Melbourne PC User Group

How To Be a Laptop Power User
Rob Reilly
 
 

Rob Reilly explains how portable computing requires more planning than simply heading to the office every day and turning on your desktop

Looking like a pro on a laptop is easy if you pack the right gear, plan ahead and pay attention to security. Ideally, your whole objective should be to make using the machine as easy and smooth as possible. True mastery of the laptop as a tool is a matter of practice and experience. How many times have you seen someone fighting with their machine while at a business meeting or at a client site simply because they didn't spend a little time making sure that their modem dialled correctly or their special application loaded?

It doesn't have to be that way.

In this article I'll share effective tips and techniques that I've developed during 16 years as a laptop user. I'd like to tell you right up front that I'm a die-hard Linux user. Particularly, SuSE Linux 8.0 and 8.2. Don't let that scare you away from reading the article, though, because almost all of the information contained here is operating system non-specific. Linux suits my needs and gives me the reliability I demand. If a Windows or Mac laptop work for you, that's all that really matters.

What To Pack

The right laptop can make a huge difference in how you work when you are "mobile".

Most people only think about the speed of the processor and size of the hard drive when considering a laptop. While those things are important, the size, weight, durability, screen and keyboard size should all be considered from a usability standpoint.

For example: I like the smaller 14 inch screen, because it isn't so distracting when I have the machine on the table and am trying to talk to a client at the same time. On the other hand, if you are a tough negotiator, perhaps a larger screen would give you an edge with the intimidation factor while haggling over prices.

Using a laptop for portable computing does require a little more planning than just heading to the office every day and turning on your desktop. What you pack in your computer bag will depend on the types of jobs you do. I usually assume that my designated venue will not have all the facilities that I require to use my laptop. So, I just try to carry everything I need with me.

One of the first lessons for a laptop road warrior is to try everything out ahead of time.
Practice makes perfect and you might think about using your laptop for all your computing needs, before you go on the road. Doing your day to day job on the machine will certainly make you aware of its capabilities and limitations. Much better to know that you have only two hours of battery time than to be surprised when the machine powers off unexpectedly because you thought the advertised battery time was four hours.

If you are going to connect to a Network get either an integrated 10/100 jack on the laptop or include a Network card in your bag. Some people even use the tiny new USB Network adapters. For wired Network laptop users it's always good to take along a spare 15 foot CAT 5 cable. I even carry a homemade crossover cable for when I just hook two computers together. Since I run Linux, I can either start up an NFS server for use with another Linux machine or Samba to transfer files with a Windows based machine. Works great and can be a lifesaver.
 


Figure 1. The essentials for travelling

Make a small logbook of things that you will need when you go on the road. Put the logbook in the front pocket of your bag, then update it as you need to. When you first start travelling and using a laptop, you will surely forget something. Regularly reviewing, updating and revising the logbook will help you quickly learn what you need and don't need on any given laptop carrying trip.

As a writer, I use a word or text processing application quite a bit and music usually helps me concentrate. It might be useful to include a CD or two and a pair of earphones. I like to listen to a little jazz or Santana while I write. Of course, you will also need a built in CD reader and some type of CD player program. You could also listen to music while waiting for your flight at the airport.

It's difficult to get away from carrying around a collection of cables, adapters and assorted parts. It all depends on the job you are doing. If you just check e-mail and cruise the Web, using a dial-up line, your cable and extra equipment needs will be meagre. If you do full blown multimedia presentations with projectors, audio, white boards and Web based demonstrations, then your equipment needs will be significant. Keep in mind, the more you carry, the more it will weigh. If you are at the high end, invest in a lightweight luggage dolly or a computer bag with built in wheels and handle. Your back will thank you for it.

Here is a list of cords and adapters that I usually need while on the road:

  • Power cord for laptop power supply

  • Spare power cord for projectors, other computers, etc.

  • 15 foot long CAT 5 cable

  • 6 foot long crossover CAT 5 cable

  • 15 foot long 3 outlet extension cord

  • 25 foot telephone modem cable

  • Telephone modem cable union (connects 2 phone cables together)

  • Two 3 foot long stereo audio cable with RCA type plugs

  • Two stereo audio (2 RCA inputs) to 1/8" phono plug adapters

  • Power converter for international travel

Optional cords and adapters might include:
  • Printer cable

  • USB cable

  • Two 50 foot long audio cables with RCA type audio plugs at each end

  • Two RCA connector unions (connects 2 RCA plugs together)

  • 6 outlet power strip with 10 foot cord

  • 12 volt DC to 120 volt AC inverter (for using your laptop in a vehicle)

Various odd parts that I include in my computer bag include:
  • A pen sized screwdriver

  • Small Phillips type screwdriver

  • Small pad of Post-It notes

  • Spare blank floppy

  • Spare ball point pens

  • A permanent marker

  • Set of dry erase markers

  • Some zip ties

  • Small flashlight

  • Roll of duct tape (to tape down cords, secure projectors, etc)

Why Laptop Users Should Plan

Using the power of your portable office (your laptop) effectively, requires more planning than what is needed by your desktop bound associates.

Try before you ride. I always like to try out new programs before I go on the road. If you know that you are going to be using a new application at a client site, load it ahead of time and work out any bugs, before you get there. Even new versions of software can cause problems. Many times vendors add new features to a package that work a little differently than the old version. Perhaps a menu is rearranged or a screen has changed. By working with an application for a few days before going mobile with your computer, you will be much more familiar with the program and much more professional when the heat is on.

Definitely review all phone numbers that you might need while on the road. If you will be using a dial-up modem and calling from several different locations, you should record all the various numbers needed to get into your Internet Service Provider's Network. It's a little tough to look up an ISP's dial-up number once you are at your destination...when you can't get connected because you don't have a valid dial-up number.

The same goes for support numbers. ISP dial-up numbers change occasionally and having the their tech support number might save you some headaches. It might even make sense to run through what you would do in various scenarios. What if there isn't a local dial-up number? Who would you call if the modem can't connect? Who do you call if you can't send e-mail? You get the idea. If you carry a PDA be sure to copy all the important numbers from your computer, just as a backup.

Getting connected to a Network or broadband while on the road is a real challenge. Normally, if you are using a laptop supplied by your company, you will be able to connect to the Network at all their corporate locations. So called "cyber cafes", where you can go and connect to broadband for a fee, are not really very widespread. And, most companies have policies that prevent you from connecting your personal laptop to their corporate Network. And, as much as we'd like to believe it, WiFi access points are not on every street corner. What I've done in the past is develop relationships with Network or system administrators in locations where I need to do some work. Also, wired and wireless connectivity is beginning to show up more frequently at conferences and conventions. Call the promoter to see if it is available. Some hotels offer broadband for a daily fee.

Doing regular backups are the mark of a true pro level laptop power user. What would you do if your laptop was stolen or it fell on the floor from the overhead bin after your flight. Having all your important files backed up on CDs, while safely tucked away in your checked baggage could be the difference between success and a completely wasted business trip. If you had good backups you could travel to a Kinko's and use their computers to get at your data. Or, you could slip the CDs into a company computer on-site and access the data.

Lastly, I always like to carry the important software CDs with me, such as, my SuSE 8.0 Linux set. Windows users might carry their Windows installation and MS Office CDs. Why? Because you never know what driver you might need. If you get to a client site or a Kinko's copy centre and want to use a printer, you'll probably have to configure a new printer on your machine. Or what if some obscure configuration file gets deleted by mistake. Better to have the disks and be able to fix the problem than just carry around a dead laptop for the duration of your visit. You are familiar with how to install software and do basic system troubleshooting, aren't you?

Planning before going out into the world with your laptop doesn't have to be hard. And, don't worry, you'll find new and improved ways to do things as you gain more seat time in front of your machine while "out and around". Believe me.

Some Words On Security

It's a sad fact of life that laptops get stolen on a regular basis. With a little planning and vigilance, the risk can be markedly reduced. I've broken it down into physical and Network security. Physical security is pretty obvious, but ensuring that your laptop and data are safe from the bad guys on the Net, is just as important. Most people totally ignore the Network security aspect of laptop operation.

Let's first discuss physical security.

Don't give a bad guy a reason to break into your car. If the laptop is in plain sight, you are just asking for someone to steal it. Make a habit of storing the machine in the boot, where it can't be seen. And, for goodness sake don't arrive at your destination and then put the laptop in the boot. At that point, it's too late. You don't want anybody to know it's in there. If you have to, just pull over a few blocks away from where you are going and do the transfer.

In public places, make sure you can always see your laptop. Sit in a corner of a room or put the machine on the floor between your legs, so that it's always close and can't be quickly
grabbed.

Be careful when talking to people, for example, at ticket counter. Somebody may try to distract you while their associate disappears with your machine. Keep the laptop in your hand or slung over your shoulder in its bag.

Having a cool shiny new laptop bag is also a dead giveaway that you might also have a shiny new laptop inside. Why not save your money and carry around an old beat up bag with a new machine inside. Who is going to steal a ragged old laptop bag. They know they won't be able to get much for a tired old machine that looks like it's on its last legs. Forget your ego and fashion statements in favour of keeping your machine safe.
 


Figure 2.  Old beat up computer bag.


Figure 3. My Plain Jane computer bag.

Any time you attach to a Network or use a wireless card, you should realize that you may not be protected by Firewalls, corporate virus scanners or intrusion detection systems. Here are some portable Network security tips.

If you are on a Windows machine, at the very least, run some type of software firewall. Back when I used Windows, I really liked ZoneAlarm. With it you could close Network ports and log any attempts to access your machine FROM the Network. Be aware that software Firewalls sometimes need to be configured to allow certain applications two-way access, in order to work properly. Generally there will be a menu screen that lets you set up which applications will have what access permissions.

Linux users can run all types of intrusion detection programs and software firewalls or log Network/ process activity. If you are using your laptop as a server, you can also lock down the file permissions and close any Network ports that you don't need. Finally, if you are really paranoid, just start up one of the many available packet sniffers and monitor the traffic on the Network. Be aware that if you are hooked up to a corporate LAN, the Network administrators may not appreciate your Network sniffing activity, though, especially if you are using one that sends out probing packets.

Be careful of where you use your laptop and be aware of the risks. If you are new to laptops, are using a wireless card and are enjoying all the interesting people while attending a Defcon conference, you should expect to get hacked. Perhaps a silly example. As a portable Networked laptop user, you are totally responsible for your computer's security and should put in the appropriate safeguards.

Conclusion

A laptop can be a tremendous tool for your business if you pack the right gear, plan ahead for contingencies and are aware of security concerns. It takes a little more effort than using a desktop simply because you need to carry everything with you.

Currently I do all my regular work on an ancient 300 MHz. Pentium II with 256 MB of memory and a 10 GB hard disk. I run SuSE Linux 8.0 Professional, OpenOffice.org for the word processor and Mozilla for the Web browser. I'm happy with the combination and it works well for me.

Above all, get out there and don't be afraid to venture into new territory with your machine. Non-laptop users may see it as a novelty, but with a little practice, you'll look like a pro power user in no time.

About The Author
Rob Reilly,
rreilly@cfl.rr.com is a writer and technology consultant, involved in Internet, Wireless and Linux projects. He is a strong advocate of recycling and hot-rodding obsolete PC hardware and is always on the lookout for stories and projects that focus on interesting products, Linux and business applications.
Images by Paul "Catman" Reilly.

Reprinted from the August 2003 issue of PC Update, the magazine of Melbourne PC User Group, Australia

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